Could junk food labels displaying exercise required to burn off calories help reduce obesity?

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Food labels displaying the amount of exercise needed to burn off the calories in the product are being touted as a way to reduce obesity, but not everyone is convinced.

Researchers at the Loughborough University in the UK believe labelling select foods with their physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE), which tell people how much walking or running is needed to “work off” food, may reduce obesity.

Amanda Daly, professor of behavioural medicine at Loughborough University, told Nadia Mitsopoulos on ABC Radio Perth the PACE labelling may be easier for people to understand than a nutrition panel.

“PACE labelling is effectively about trying to translate the energy in food,” Professor Daley said.

“Just giving people a number [of calories or kilojoules] with no context doesn’t really help them make a decision.

“[If] I just said to you, for example, ‘You know, a packet of crisps has got 150 calories,’ what does that actually mean to you, as a consumer? It’s just three numbers, right?”

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How many minutes in a chocolate bar?

Professor Daley recently presented the PACE idea at the International Congress on Obesity in Melbourne in October.

While the team at Loughborough University is still trialling PACE labelling in cafeterias and vending machines, it says early the findings are promising.

“Our initial findings have shown that when you put PACE labelling in a context where people have to make decisions about foods, it reduces the number of calories that the public select for consumption, which is exactly the thing that we’re trying to do,” she said.

“Most of the public are overweight, most of us are eating a little bit too much food and not doing quite enough physical activity.

“We’ve also found that the public have said that if PACE labelling was introduced, it would help them to think about what they eat, but also to reduce their purchasing of really high-calorie foods.”

A PACE (physical activity calorie equivalent) label on a muffin package
A PACE (physical activity calorie equivalent) label on a muffin package.(Supplied: Loughborough University, Amanda Daley)

Majority of Australian adult population overweight

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics health survey, conducted in 2018, found that 67 per cent of adults in Australia and 25 per cent of children were overweight or obese.

Some listeners to ABC Radio Perth said they thought PACE labels would be helpful.

Hendo: “I’m a MASSIVE chocoholic. I think the new labels are a good idea to keeping me informed about how much more physical activity is required for the chocolate bars I eat daily.”

Hailey: “Pace labelling is a great idea. Informed consent before hopping into a chocolate bar. Might even inspire people to exercise.”

Kim: “I like the idea. It would give me the incentive to walk to the shop and back if I really wanted a chocolate bar instead of driving to get it.”

Others had reservations:

Ciara: “I don’t like this idea. As a recovered bulimic and anorexic, we don’t need labels further making people obsessed with numbers and calories in this diet-obsessed culture. We need to focus on eating mainly fresh food, nothing wrong with chocolate bars. Ingredient list is enough and good.”

Alex: “You can have 300 calories from a donut or 300 calories from a piece of fish. They have the same calorie value yet one will be satisfying the other is just empty calories. It matters more where the calories come from.”

Food ‘more than just calories’

Sheri Cooper, adjunct lecturer at the school of medical and health sciences at Perth’s Edith Cowan University, said while PACE labelling could provide useful information to people, a healthy lifestyle was about far more than calorie counting.

“We know that food is much more complex than that. It’s full of nutrients and it’s important, whether those calories are coming from nutrient-rich sources or they are discretionary calories,” Dr Cooper said.

“From a from a weight-management perspective, you need to live a healthy lifestyle, which really requires you to eat a well-balanced diet which is full of the five food groups, as well as not eating too many foods that are high in our saturated fats, sugar, and sodium. And this system really doesn’t distinguish that to consumers.”

Cereal, mango frappe, tinned pears, lasagne, beef and vegetable stir-fry.
Sheri Cooper recommends people eat a balanced diet, which includes the odd treat.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Nicole Mills)

While calories and their exercise equivalents may be very useful information for individuals to receive as part of personalised advice from a dietician, she is less convinced of its value as a population-level strategy.

“For the last 20 or more years, accredited practising dietitians have been using this as an education tool for some clients to assist with weight management,” she said.

“It is a good tool to show the difference in how calories contribute to energy in the diet and how you burn those calories.

“Extending that to a label on a public-health nutrition message, that’s a whole different thing.

“We really do need good-quality research to show that putting that message out there really does reduce the chronic-disease occurrence that happens in the population.”

Promoting healthy lifestyles

Dr Cooper said exercise should be seen as part of a healthy lifestyle with a range of benefits well beyond burning calories.

“We really need to go back to the messages of the Australian dietary guidelines, which emphasise fitting some form of exercise in every day.

“[As well as burning calories] it can tackle a lot of other things — it reduces stress, it increases lean-muscle mass, which increases your metabolic rate.”

Dr Cooper was also unsure whether the labels would motivate people to do more exercise.

“People operate on a lot of different levels,” she said.

“There is no evidence to show that.

“Even the researchers that are proposing this strategy acknowledged that there is a gap in the evidence and there’s definitely more research to happen before we make public-health policy around this.”

No need for food guilt

Eating the occasional chocolate bar or muffin should be something people can do without guilt or feeling the need to immediately compensate with exercise, Dr Cooper said.

“That’s healthy eating, isn’t it? Healthy eating, as we know from the Australian dietary guidelines, is sometimes having foods that don’t fit on the healthy dietary guideline plates.”

Professor Daley agreed there was no single strategy that was likely to reduce the number of people who were overweight or obese.

“I think there are lots of things that we can do,” Professor Daley said.

“We need all the information and strategies that we can to try and help the public make these decisions, bearing in mind that most of us are overweight or obese.”